Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 16

‘The time was coming when I should see him loved, trusted, admired, with a legend of strength and prowess forming round his name as though he had been the stuff of a hero. It’s true — I assure you; as true as I’m sitting here talking about him in vain. He, on his side, had that faculty of beholding at a hint the face of his desire and the shape of his dream, without which the earth would know no lover and no adventurer. He captured much honour and an Arcadian happiness (I won’t say anything about innocence) in the bush, and it was as good to him as the honour and the Arcadian happiness of the streets to another man. Felicity, felicity — how shall I say it? — is quaffed out of a golden cup in every latitude: the flavour is with you — with you alone, and you can make it as intoxicating as you please. He was of the sort that would drink deep, as you may guess from what went before. I found him, if not exactly intoxicated, then at least flushed with the elixir at his lips. He had not obtained it at once. There had been, as you know, a period of probation amongst infernal ship-chandlers, during which he had suffered and I had worried about — about — my trust — you may call it. I don’t know that I am completely reassured now, after beholding him in all his brilliance. That was my last view of him — in a strong light, dominating, and yet in complete accord with his surroundings — with the life of the forests and with the life of men. I own that I was impressed, but I must admit to myself that after all this is not the lasting impression. He was protected by his isolation, alone of his own superior kind, in close touch with Nature, that keeps faith on such easy terms with her lovers. But I cannot fix before my eye the image of his safety. I shall always remember him as seen through the open door of my room, taking, perhaps, too much to heart the mere consequences of his failure. I am pleased, of course, that some good — and even some splendour — came out of my endeavours; but at times it seems to me it would have been better for my peace of mind if I had not stood between him and Chester’s confoundedly generous offer. I wonder what his exuberant imagination would have made of Walpole islet — that most hopelessly forsaken crumb of dry land on the face of the waters. It is not likely I would ever have heard, for I must tell you that Chester, after calling at some Australian port to patch up his brig-rigged sea-anachronism, steamed out into the Pacific with a crew of twenty-two hands all told, and the only news having a possible bearing upon the mystery of his fate was the news of a hurricane which is supposed to have swept in its course over the Walpole shoals, a month or so afterwards. Not a vestige of the Argonauts ever turned up; not a sound came out of the waste. Finis! The Pacific is the most discreet of live, hot-tempered oceans: the chilly Antarctic can keep a secret too, but more in the manner of a grave.

‘And there is a sense of blessed finality in such discretion, which is what we all more or less sincerely are ready to admit — for what else is it that makes the idea of death supportable? End! Finis! the potent word that exorcises from the house of life the haunting shadow of fate. This is what — notwithstanding the testimony of my eyes and his own earnest assurances — I miss when I look back upon Jim’s success. While there’s life there is hope, truly; but there is fear too. I don’t mean to say that I regret my action, nor will I pretend that I can’t sleep o’ nights in consequence; still, the idea obtrudes itself that he made so much of his disgrace while it is the guilt alone that matters. He was not — if I may say so — clear to me. He was not clear. And there is a suspicion he was not clear to himself either. There were his fine sensibilities, his fine feelings, his fine longings — a sort of sublimated, idealised selfishness. He was — if you allow me to say so — very fine; very fine — and very unfortunate. A little coarser nature would not have borne the strain; it would have had to come to terms with itself — with a sigh, with a grunt, or even with a guffaw; a still coarser one would have remained invulnerably ignorant and completely uninteresting.

‘But he was too interesting or too unfortunate to be thrown to the dogs, or even to Chester. I felt this while I sat with my face over the paper and he fought and gasped, struggling for his breath in that terribly stealthy way, in my room; I felt it when he rushed out on the verandah as if to fling himself over — and didn’t; I felt it more and more all the time he remained outside, faintly lighted on the background of night, as if standing on the shore of a sombre and hopeless sea.

‘An abrupt heavy rumble made me lift my head. The noise seemed to roll away, and suddenly a searching and violent glare fell on the blind face of the night. The sustained and dazzling flickers seemed to last for an unconscionable time. The growl of the thunder increased steadily while I looked at him, distinct and black, planted solidly upon the shores of a sea of light. At the moment of greatest brilliance the darkness leaped back with a culminating crash, and he vanished before my dazzled eyes as utterly as though he had been blown to atoms. A blustering sigh passed; furious hands seemed to tear at the shrubs, shake the tops of the trees below, slam doors, break window-panes, all along the front of the building. He stepped in, closing the door behind him, and found me bending over the table: my sudden anxiety as to what he would say was very great, and akin to a fright. “May I have a cigarette?” he asked. I gave a push to the box without raising my head. “I want — want — tobacco,” he muttered. I became extremely buoyant. “Just a moment.” I grunted pleasantly. He took a few steps here and there. “That’s over,” I heard him say. A single distant clap of thunder came from the sea like a gun of distress. “The monsoon breaks up early this year,” he remarked conversationally, somewhere behind me. This encouraged me to turn round, which I did as soon as I had finished addressing the last envelope. He was smoking greedily in the middle of the room, and though he heard the stir I made, he remained with his back to me for a time.

‘“Come — I carried it off pretty well,” he said, wheeling suddenly. “Something’s paid off — not much. I wonder what’s to come.” His face did not show any emotion, only it appeared a little darkened and swollen, as though he had been holding his breath. He smiled reluctantly as it were, and went on while I gazed up at him mutely. . . . “Thank you, though — your room — jolly convenient — for a chap — badly hipped.” . . . The rain pattered and swished in the garden; a water-pipe (it must have had a hole in it) performed just outside the window a parody of blubbering woe with funny sobs and gurgling lamentations, interrupted by jerky spasms of silence. . . . “A bit of shelter,” he mumbled and ceased.

‘A flash of faded lightning darted in through the black framework of the windows and ebbed out without any noise. I was thinking how I had best approach him (I did not want to be flung off again) when he gave a little laugh. “No better than a vagabond now” . . . the end of the cigarette smouldered between his fingers . . . “without a single — single,” he pronounced slowly; “and yet . . . ” He paused; the rain fell with redoubled violence. “Some day one’s bound to come upon some sort of chance to get it all back again. Must!” he whispered distinctly, glaring at my boots.

‘I did not even know what it was he wished so much to regain, what it was he had so terribly missed. It might have been so much that it was impossible to say. A piece of ass’s skin, according to Chester. . . . He looked up at me inquisitively. “Perhaps. If life’s long enough,” I muttered through my teeth with unreasonable animosity. “Don’t reckon too much on it.”

‘“Jove! I feel as if nothing could ever touch me,” he said in a tone of sombre conviction. “If this business couldn’t knock me over, then there’s no fear of there being not enough time to — climb out, and . . . ” He looked upwards.

‘It struck me that it is from such as he that the great army of waifs and strays is recruited, the army that marches down, down into all the gutters of the earth. As soon as he left my room, that “bit of shelter,” he would take his place in the ranks, and begin the journey towards the bottomless pit. I at least had no illusions; but it was I, too, who a moment ago had been so sure of the power of words, and now was afraid to speak, in the same way one dares not move for fear of losing a slippery hold. It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp. It was the fear of losing him that kept me silent, for it was borne upon me suddenly and with unaccountable force that should I let him slip away into the darkness I would never forgive myself.

‘“Well. Thanks — once more. You’ve been — er — uncommonly — really there’s no word to . . . Uncommonly! I don’t know why, I am sure. I am afraid I don’t feel as grateful as I would if the whole thing hadn’t been so brutally sprung on me. Because at bottom . . . you, yourself . . . ” He stuttered.

‘“Possibly,” I struck in. He frowned.

‘“All the same, one is responsible.” He watched me like a hawk.

‘“And that’s true, too,” I said.

‘“Well. I’ve gone with it to the end, and I don’t intend to let any man cast it in my teeth without — without — resenting it.” He clenched his fist.

‘“There’s yourself,” I said with a smile — mirthless enough, God knows — but he looked at me menacingly. “That’s my business,” he said. An air of indomitable resolution came and went upon his face like a vain and passing shadow. Next moment he looked a dear good boy in trouble, as before. He flung away the cigarette. “Goodbye,” he said, with the sudden haste of a man who had lingered too long in view of a pressing bit of work waiting for him; and then for a second or so he made not the slightest movement. The downpour fell with the heavy uninterrupted rush of a sweeping flood, with a sound of unchecked overwhelming fury that called to one’s mind the images of collapsing bridges, of uprooted trees, of undermined mountains. No man could breast the colossal and headlong stream that seemed to break and swirl against the dim stillness in which we were precariously sheltered as if on an island. The perforated pipe gurgled, choked, spat, and splashed in odious ridicule of a swimmer fighting for his life. “It is raining,” I remonstrated, “and I . . . ” “Rain or shine,” he began brusquely, checked himself, and walked to the window. “Perfect deluge,” he muttered after a while: he leaned his forehead on the glass. “It’s dark, too.”

‘“Yes, it is very dark,” I said.

‘He pivoted on his heels, crossed the room, and had actually opened the door leading into the corridor before I leaped up from my chair. “Wait,” I cried, “I want you to . . . ” “I can’t dine with you again to-night,” he flung at me, with one leg out of the room already. “I haven’t the slightest intention of asking you,” I shouted. At this he drew back his foot, but remained mistrustfully in the very doorway. I lost no time in entreating him earnestly not to be absurd; to come in and shut the door.’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06